The Blue Plate Special is a meal offering traditionally served in American diners. How did this special get its name?
The Blue Plate Special is the name given to a special inexpensive plated lunch or dinner served in Diners and other inexpensive restaurants. The tradition of the blue plate special has been around since at least the 1920’s and was a hearty and cheap meal perfect for the hardworking but money-strapped folks of the time.
It may have come about even earlier. It is definitely mentioned in print earlier than 1920 and there are some sources that claim the first known use of the blue plate special was in 1892 by the Fred Harvey “Harvey House” restaurants, which, located along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad served fast meals to travelers.
Fred Harvey supposedly bought cheap disposable blue plates with divided sections. It is also claimed that the blue color was an imitation of the famous, and much more expensive plates, made by Josiah Wedgwood. There is also some indication that the tradition actually began on railroad dining cars, rather than the “Diners” these cars were eventually turned into. Rather than a solid blue disposable plate, however, there is even more evidence to suggest that the plates the Blue Plate Special derived its name from were plates made in the popular Blue Willow china pattern, a pseudo-Chinese pattern widely produced by porcelain firms of the time and used extensively by restaurants all over the country.
The video below explains this origin of the blue plate special, which is also mentioned in the post “Adam and Even on a Raft, the Blue Plate Special, and Other Diner Slang” where you can learn a lot more about diner lingo.
Watch the video below or view it on Youtube: Origin of the Blue Plate Special
Have you ever had the blue plate special at a diner? Was it even served on a blue plate? Well, it is something from the depression era that became a tradition in diners and other restaurants, and it’s something you’ll still see still today when you walk into a roadside diner and see a sign announcing the Blue Plate Special for the day.
The blue plate special refers to any large and hearty, inexpensive plated lunch or dinner with generous servings and usually a main dish with meat, three or four vegetables, bread, and a drink. Think of something like a big slab of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, a roll, and maybe a big iced tea to drink. Today’s Blue Plate Specials will probably be served on a standard white restaurant plate, but the ‘blue’ at one time, referred to an actual plate, which was a thick China plate done in the very popular Blue China pattern, or Blue Willow Pattern, which had compartments to separate the main dish from the sides. This dish was actually called a grill plate and it was used so often it came to be synonymous with the large and cheap diner meal.
Blue Willow China Pattern
This blue willow China pattern was produced by pretty much any China company around because from the early 1920’s until after World War II, numerous china manufacturers were making heavy porcelain plates specifically for use in restaurants. The patterns on the plates may not have always been exactly the same, but they all were based on the same ‘blue willow’ motif. The common characteristics you will find on these plates’ patterns are a pagoda, three willows, a fence, and a bridge with three people running across it. There also two birds flying above the scene.
There is a story behind this pattern. The three figures running across the bridge are two lovers being chased by either the girl’s father or a wealthy old man to whom the girl’s hand in marriage had been promised. The two lovers were captured and imprisoned in the pagoda, and then became lost in the maze underneath the pagoda, and died. But their love is so great that in death they are transformed into birds and fly away, and these are the two birds flying in the scene above.
Although the story is Chinese, the pattern is actually English in origin. It was first designed and engraved in 1780 by an artist named Thomas Minton, who then sold it to a potter named Thomas Turner, and Turner mass produced the pattern on porcelain for the economy market.
Turner first produced this blue underglaze pattern during his tenure at the Caughley factory.
It became the most popular China pattern in the world. Ah, it was subsequently imitated by many pottery makers and became available in the U.S. in the early 1900’s and sold widely during the depression era…you could even get it through such catalogs as Sears and Woolworth’s. The blue china pattern products of the time, were, in a way, a blue-collar china.
You may see solid blue divided plates being referenced as ‘blue plate special’ plates, and some sources on the net, erroneously I think, state that the term derives from a sturdy plate with special divided compartments that was manufactured during the depression area. These sources claim that only the color blue was available which is silly, and that ‘some manufacturer’…which is never named… made the inexpensive blue plates for the restaurant trade. This is not likely to be historically accurate, as the blue willow pattern is reported to have been extensively used during the period. The solid blue divided plates were probably made after the ‘blue plate special’ was popular. Some diners today will serve their Blue Plate Special on a solid blue colored divided plate, or at least a plate with blue in it, presumably in an effort to be retro or historically accurate.